Relative Elevation & Self Carriage
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Relative elevation in its classical meaning refers to relative position of withers and croup (posture of whole spine and trunk). More recently, it is sometimes used to refer to relative placing of tip of scapula and point of hip. I will use it here in its classical equitation meaning, as it refers to the outline of the horse and not to its conformation. Horses on this page are ridden or trained by Dr. Nancy Nicholson, with the exception of Rio Sereno.

The first photo ABOVE (Dixie Morrow, photographer), shows the Morgan Ben Lyn Anchorman in levade. Here relative elevation is expressed in a classical air above the ground. The photo to its right shows the same horse in piaffe with "uphill" relative elevation. There are other more general examples of relative elevation. It requires considerable muscular effort for a horse to have "uphill" balance. In general, unschooled dressage horses have a slight downhill or level balance. This is often reflected in the negative or positive disassociation (hind leg touches down slightly ahead of front leg) of the diagonal pair in trot or canter.

The relationship between relative elevation and self carriage is not simple, given that it is neither easy to achieve or to evaluate. It is, however, subject to logical description even if exact scientific measurements on each part of its behavior are not complete. I propose to provide an assessment (description of correlations rather than causal assertions) and some suggestions. Below are samples of trot or canter from three horses of different breeds, ages and training. By the single criterion of positive or negative disassociation, they could be evaluated as being in self carriage or not. By adding another criterion and assessing these characteristics, a different conclusion about self carriage could be reached about each horse.
Note smooth roll of complexus muscle of neck (poll to shoulder) for the chestnut and his lowered hindquarters that stretch the nuchal ligament and supraspinous ligaments, respectively. The bay does not use his neck and hindquarters to stretch top line ligaments. Click on images to enlarge.
positive relative elevation, self carriage, positive disassociation of diagonal pair in left canter. This "uphill" posture continues IN SUSPENSION (below).
27 year old Württemberger gelding: positive relative elevation, self carriage, positive disassociation of diagonal pair in medium trot. He maintains his relative le
Rio Sereno
negative relative elevation, negative disassociation of left canter diagonal pair (left hind lands prior to right fore). Self carriage is absent, even though the canter is impulsive and ground-covering
Rio Sereno
14 year old Rhinelander/Canadian Hunter gelding: very slight positive relative elevation in medium trot.
Raynyday Smoke 'n Mirrors ------>>
Parts of one trot stride of a free longed 2 year old Morgan gelding worked lightly in hand in addition to his other schooling. Frames show normal unevenness in the developing trot striding of a youngster.
At left hind toe down, very slight positive disassociation on this diagonal pair. Because of his mane, the relative position of withers and croup is difficult to assess precisely. At push off on that diagonal, there is a slight negative disassociation. Digital video can reveal these qualities and is a valuable tool for trainers and riders. On landing, the right hind lands first, showing a slight positive disassociation. On average, he would appear to be in nearly level balance.

Horses may be quite heavy in the rein and achieve notable positive disassociation, so lightness in hand as a criterion of self carriage would not be met in that instance. There is a very strong correlation between cooperation between forehand (elastic stabilization of neck vertebrae with complexus system) and hindquarters (lowering of haunches using abdominal and perhaps iliopsoas system muscles), self carriage and positive relative elevation. It may be that positive disassociation of diagonal pairs reflects the maintentance of this poll to tail posture.

Anatomy that is probably involved with self carriage is diagrammed below. This assessment involves structures that stabilize the axial skeleton (skull, spine, pelvis) via a system of ligments of the trunk, allowing it to be the "base of operations" for limb movements (appendicular skeleton). There is an interesting DUAL ROLE for the "sleep locks" (sections of the stay apparatus: serratus, supraspinatus) of the shoulder and the hindquarters (hamstring group). These structures are capable of holding all segments simultaneously (horse dozing, at rest) or working segments sequentially during movement. Verifying muscule activity technically involves direct recording from the muscles, an invasive procedure.

If a horse achieves level balance under a rider, it is a substantial athletic accomplishment. More material about the physical effort of lifting a rider with straightness and positive relative elevation is HERE.

The "easy" cases for self carriage and positive relative elevation.
Horses at play and in work.
Raynyday Maximillian (foreground, on one hind leg) as a colt showing both positive relative elevation (uphill posture) and self carriage (independent balance). He is configuring his forehand by [in part] stabilizing his top line the roll of complexus muscle complex of the neck. Companion Eclipse is not in self carriage. Jackie Smith photo.
Morgan mare Raynyday Intuition (Wish) learning her role as a cutting horse. Her forehand is light, poll is the highest point of her topline and she is highly mobile and alert, working on a loose rein. Note the marked positive relative elevation of the horse and the balanced posture of the rider (trainer Mark DeForest). Riding a cutting horse requires an independent seat. A very large version of this image.

Lyn Edds photo.

Relative elevation and collection are closely tied to self carriage (sense of independent balance). Relative elevation might be considered as part of the external evidence of self carriage. The internal mechanisms (and the plural is not only intended, but emphasized) are complex and not entirely understood in terms of their combined biomechanics. For example, it is clear in the image of levade (left, top of page) that relative elevation plus self carriage in this instant has nothing to do with the shoulders, as the stance legs are the hind legs. However, relative elevation in the piaffe involves the forelimbs as well as hind limbs. Some clues to the mechanics of relative elevation can be found in the positioning of hindquarters lower than the forehand in equal bending of the articulated joints of the hindquarters.

A question arises about the behavior of the shoulder blades as relative elevation is maintained in self carriage. Shoulder blades are

1) intimately connected to the "sleep locks" of the stay apparatus (especially the two portions of the serratus muscle),
2) the difficulty lies in determining the orbit of the shoulder during stance in maintaining positive relative elevation, because the stay apparatus behavior during gait should not inhibit free motion of the forelimb, which is
3) connected muscle to bone (synsarcosis), allowing a different orbit of the scapula than if it were articulated bone to bone, as is the hind limb.

There is a question about the shape of the orbit the top of the scapula follows during the limb cycle in a gait. The measurement of this is complicated by the movements of skin during measurement (Cano, et. al., 1999; Schamhardt, 1998; Van Weeren, et. al., 1991). Claims that the serratus contracts to hold the withers up during gait should be regarded with care. More needs to be known about the behavior and sequencing of the segments of the serratus as the shoulder blade cycles.

Both relative elevation and self carriage are products of the whole horse. These qualities involve biological materials of different physical properties (bone, cartilage, muscle, tendon, ligament).

Joints among these materials range from those promoting stability to those promoting mobility. For instance the fibrous joints of the axial skeleton can be adjusted via skilled use of muscles to maintain positive relative elevation while limbs act to propel the horse in the desired balance. In addition, there are learned aspects to both qualities that guide a horse in maintaining its posture and balance with minimal aids. Learning incrementally with rewards and comfort of the horse as major priorities are a help toward the goal of willingness to maintain self-carriage. TOP

The INDEPENDENT SEAT is also deeply involved with the same sorts of relations among a variety of joints. These range from fibrous (sterno-clavicular joint), ball/socket joints (top of arm) and combined systems (human scapula). The scapula in riders has medial, lateral and cervical muscle-to-bone connections as well as its glenoid link to the upper arm and the acromioclavicluar joint (between clavicle and shoulder blade). This whole region of the body is affected strongly by sitting at a desk typing or entering data. Riders who do this as a vocation should aware that this may lead to a painful set of issues that affect their ability to achieve an independent spiral seat. The human serratus is also involved with "self carriage" in the rider's deep back musculature, helping to maintain posture of the core, which has many fibrous joints in the rib cage.

In the photos BELOW (Dr. Ruth M. Vale, photographer for the Morgans), yellow lines give reference points on two Morgans. In the top half, a yearling (Raynyday Smoke 'n Mirrors) is shown in a typical green canter on the left lead. His croup is slightly higher than the top of his withers. Note that at this moment of the canter, the left hip is lower than the right hip, showing back and loin muscling for the horses. The bottom horse of this image, a 14 year old (Raynyday Maximillian) is shown at the same moment (Time Two) of left collected canter. His croup is slightly lower than the top of his withers. Vulkan shows how a horse can maintain his pushing and carrying ability at 27 years of age. Rio was purchased at age 14 already schooled. All horses were free longed for the photos. I use free longing as a test of my horses' sense of balance and alignment.

Relative elevation is one classical criterion for the effectiveness of training. Max and Anchorman (images at top of page) were trained without use of techniques such as "rollkuer." Classical exercises for deep work that stretches and strengthens the topline and bottom line were used, with continual re-iteration of attention and confidence. Both were longed according to methods of the Spanish Riding School and were also worked in hand according to methods of Nuño Oliviera. Click on images for enlargement.

RIGHT column
Vulkan (Württemberger gelding, age 27) showing positive relative elevation at Time One (RH toe down) of left medium canter [top]; left medium canter Time Two [middle]; left medium canter Suspension [bottom]. Vulkan demonstrates that relative elevation can be maintained during a canter stride (positive disassociation of the diagonal pair), not just in selected steps within the stride.
LEFT column
Smoke (Morgan, age 12 months) at LH down (Time Two) of left ordinary canter showing negative relative elevation [top]. Max (Morgan, age 14) at left collected canter Time Two showing positive relative elevation [middle]. Rio Sereno (Rhinelander cross, age 14) left ordinary canter (not yet trained with iterated process) [bottom].
Vulkan left canter relative elevation

In the photo BELOW, the Morgans Max and Smoke are shown playing at large, with horizontal bars of a fence for reference. Max is in mid stance of a passage with very marked "uphill" relative elevation. Smoke is at mid stance of an extended canter with "downhill" relative elevation. Some features of each horse to notice are the flexion of fetlock joints, flexion at the sacro-lumbar joint (loin), position of rear stance leg relative to the vertical, use of belly musculature and use of neck muscles.

Max shows equal flexion at the fetlock of both stance legs, has "lowered" his hindquarters at the S-L joint, has a vertical rear stance leg (right hind), a flat belly due to effective use of deep and shallow muscles (abdominals and iliopsoas system) as well as an arc of 'complexus' muscles that stabilize the vertebrae of his neck.

In contrast, Smoke's gait has none of these features: he has not developed the technical skill and muscling to carry himself in the manner of the senior horse. He is athletic (as indicated by the good angle of separation between his hind legs), energetic, but unschooled. In order to achieve the posture Max is showing, Smoke will need to develop his entire top line and bottom line. Smoke, at 4 1/2 years shows development of basic skills. His training to this age included work in hand (in the Nuño Oliveira tradition) and free longing with and without a saddle.

The photo BELOW shows a horse at the start of schooling (Smoke knows voice commands and hand signals for free longing) and the result of classical gymnastic schooling (Max knows all the movements of Grand Prix dressage).
Note that Max in passage shows relative elevation consistent with piaffe.


Alexander, R. McN. 1977. Mechanics and scaling of terrestrial locomotion. In Scale Effects in Animal Locomotion, T. J. Pedley (ed.). London: Academic Press, 93-110.

Cano, M. R., F. Miró, J. Vivo and A. M. Galisteo. 1999. Comparative Biokinematic Study of Young and Adult Andalusian Horses at the Trot J. Vet. Med., Series A,Vol. 46 (2), 91ff, March.

Hildebrand, M. 1976. Analysis of tetrapod gaits: General considerations and symmetrical gaits. In Neural Control of Locomotion, R. N. Herman, S. Grillner, P. S. Stein, D. G. Stuart (eds.). New York: Plenum Press, 203-236.

Schamhardt, H. C. 1998. The Mechanics of Quadrupedal Locomotion. ‘How Is the Body Propelled by Muscles? European Journal of Morphology Vol. 36, No. 4, December, Taylor & Frances, Publ.

Schamhardt, H. C., A. J. Van Den Bogert and A. Barneveld. 1992. Correction models for skin displacement in equine kinematic gait analysis. Swiss. Vet. Vol. 8, 7-10.

Van Weeren, P. R., W. Hartman, M. O. Jansen and W. Back 1991. Biomechanics of the thoracic limb of the horse. J. Equine Vet. Sci. 12, 178-192.

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